Sunday, June 5, 2011

Should SA follow Germany regarding Nuclear Power?

I had intended writing this blog on the recent decision by Germany to phase out Nuclear Power by 2022, it's impact and consequences but I have since decided to focus rather on how this decision should not be foolishly used to dictate the nuclear policy decisions in South Africa. Before proceeding any further, let me state that I am a great supporter of renewable energy and would love for it to form a much larger component of our national energy mix but I am not naive of the consequences that come with it. In an effort to reduce carbon emissions and improve our chances of sustaining life on earth, I would be prepared to pay more for electricity. I would accept that the sun does not shine everyday and the wind does not always blow and will therefore accept that there could be days that electricity supply would be interrupted. I am also fully aware that the majority of my fellow citizens would not be willing or able to make that sacrifice, mostly due to the massive levels of poverty already prevalent in our society.

The decision by Germany needs to be viewed in context and requires one to zoom out to understand it. Late last year, Germany announced that it intended increaseing the operating life of its nuclear power plants and this led to much protest from concerned citizens. The chaos that reigned at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan after the Tsunami therefore fed right into these protests and the leaders of the world's 4th largest economy were therefore forced to do a U-turn? Wheteher this proves to be a brave and radical gesture, or a blatantly populist move that defies all common sense remains to be seen. One thing is certain. This has all but secured a coalition for Angela Merkel with the popular Green Party after Germany's next election and may extend the reign of the Chancellor.

Enough on foreign politics (for now), which is what this is. There are some things that I would like my fellow citizens to consider before engaging in any discussion on this topic.
  1. Do not repeat the opinion of Gareth Cliff: There is a reason that this is number 1 and it is because you should not base your opinion on any topic by the half facts presented by a radio DJ whose primary concern is of popularity an ratings.  Those should be his priorities (It's his job) but do not therefore expect an unbiased, well though out argument from him because his priority is not education or even the dissemination of information but, entertainment. This is true for most radio DJ's but I mentioned Gareth Cliff, because although I find the show and playlist entertaining I am often appalled with his views on current affairs.
  2.  We are not Germany: If anybody has a chance of succeeding with this audacious plan, it would have to be the Germans. They have already achieved so much and it is primarily due to the role there government has played in the promotion of renewable energy. They have for years been charging consumers a small renewable energy tax which was used to subsidise the promotion of renewable energy in the country. Two years ago a similar tax was added to the cost of electricity in South Africa but that will be used to merely fill up the coffers as there has been no indication from Government on what this will be used for. The day after Germany announced its decision regarding nuclear power. NERSA (National Energy Regulator South Africa) announced a delay with the REFIT (Renewable Energy Feed in Tariff) which was launched to attract investors to build renewable power generating schemes in the country.
  3. Germany is not us: Government remains committed (in policy ayways) to the Universal Access Plan which is a plan to electrify all the citizens of our country and to supply the poorest among these with Free Basic Electricity. I remain committed to this goal. In recent years, the cost of energy in South Africa has soared and we, as a country, are not in a position to pass on the cost of such a shift in policy to the consumers. The cost of renewable energy is significantly higher than coal or even nuclear for that matter and we as South Africans are not ready for such a step change. We are still adjusting to paying the true cost of the cheap coal energy we generate so much off.
  4. Nuclear energy is presently the only viable alternative to provide base load power to the grid. Solar systems require the sun to shine, wind farms require wind to blow. These can therefore not be a reliable source of providing power 24 hours a day.
  5. We have no safety net: If Germany fails to meet his target by replacing its nuclear fleet with renewable energy in the next decade it will be forced to increase energy imports from either France (Grid is 70% Nuclear) or Russia (Considerable Gas reserves). We are the giant of energy generation in our region, so we are unable to depend too heavily on neighboring countries to assist should we have an energy shortfall.
If it appears from the above that I believe Nuclear is the solution for South Africa, let me clear up that misunderstanding, I don't. Not presently anyways. We have no policy on how to dispose of Nuclear waste in South Africa. This has been outstanding for many years and until it is completed, no additional nuclear plants should be constructed in our country. To put things in perspective, the low and intermediate radioactive waste used to be disposed off in Vaalputs (a near surface disposal site for radioactive waste) but this is currently being stored on site at Koeburg because the National Radioactive Waste Management Agency  has yet to appoint the new operator to manage the site! So presently not is Koeburg just a nuclear power sttaion on our coastline, but it is also our nuclear waste storage site. I hope we have an Tsunami early warning system but suspect that if we did have a "Tsunami early Warning Management Agency" that functioned under the Dept of Environmental Affairs, they would have just announced its decision to suspend operations at the system until a new operator is found and employed!

Presently our best option would be to reduce our electricity consumption. This would be advantageous to us the consumer in two ways in that it would save us money and would help reduce emissions. Paying lip service to the promulgation of renewable energy in our country will continue well into the foreseeable future but until there is a drastic shift in government policy, I fear nothing more will come of it.


  1. This is such a balanced and informative blog. A relief after ready heatedly polarised positions, neither of which sounded completely sturdy.

  2. Thanks Clea. I also liked the way the argument was presented in this blog.